The TUC’s new Charter on work experience and workfare sets out just why we are opposed to workfare and draws a distinction between bad work experience and good.
Workfare – making unemployed people do unpaid work in jobs that would normally be done by paid workers – is triply unfair. Firstly, it is unfair to unemployed people –unpaid work is exploitation, pure and simple. Secondly, it is unfair to workers – when they have to compete with workfare conscripts some workers will lose their jobs, others will find that their pay, overtime or other conditions deteriorate (and the workers who lose most will be the weakest and lowest paid.)
Thirdly, it is unfair to other businesses. Employers who don’t use people on workfare will find it difficult to match competitors who are effectively being subsidised. You don’t hear this point very often, but progressive businesses have a very good reason to oppose workfare.
Workfare isn’t the only unpaid work that’s around at the moment. Plenty of government employment programmes offer “work experience” which may not be substituting for the work of other workers but still has all the other characteristics of a job.
Trades unionists know bad work experience when we come across it. We recognise it when unemployed people tell us about programme providers who send them off to do a few days’ work for no pay, with no training and no expectation of an interview, let alone a job offer. You have to suspect that this is simply about making an unscrupulous employer an offer they have no intention of refusing.
But work experience isn’t necessarily a problem. Where unions negotiate for voluntary paid work experience, leading to an interview or job offer and safeguards to protect existing workers it can be a win-win solution to a serious economic problem. Job guarantees, that create real jobs for unemployed people could help prevent the emergence of a ‘lost generation’ of young people.
The best answer of all would be is a growing economy, creating the jobs unemployed workers desperately want. And that means that the government must accept that austerity is choking growth.